Monday, July 21, 2003

The Revenge of the Dads

Some time in the late 19th century, or perhaps even earlier, newspapermen discovered the power of myth. They realized that, as the public organ of sight and the custodians of the collective memory, the press was in a position to alter history itself. That conferred upon journalism a godlike power. Certainly Orson Welles knew that William Randolph Hearst -- or was it Henry Luce -- fictionalized as Citizen Kane, was a fit subject for an epic. But even ordinary scribblers could change the course of nations, or condemn millions.  Walter Duranty, the chief Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, is now credited with inventing the avuncular, high-minded image of "Uncle Joe" out of the mass murderer Joseph Stalin. He was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his fabrications, which molded the opinion of a generation, and if the Pulitzer Committee is now considering the unprecedented step of revoking the prize, it will come too late for the millions of Ukranians whose murder he concealed.

The power of a journalist to turn total falsehood into accepted fact was highlighted by the belated discovery that Jayson Blair, ace reporter for the New York Times, had filed hundreds of stories, including those on the Washington Beltway sniper, by simply regurgitating what he had read from other newspapers. In many instances, he quoted people who he never interviewed, and claimed a dateline from places he never visited. Peter Arnett, recently fired for moonlighting as a spokesman for Saddam Hussein, was famous for reporting that an American officer in Vietnam had said "We had to destroy the village in order to save it". Now it turns out that he may have invented the entire phrase. The village in question, Ben Tre, was actually destroyed by the Viet Cong. But Peter Arnett had his Pulitzer. And so it is with regret, but not surprise, for readers to learn that the British Broadcasting Corporation, the legendary BBC, may have fabricated quotes from Dr. David Kelly, a British Ministry of Defense scientist, in order to push it's editorial agenda.

Yet the real news is the amazing rapidity with which fabrications are being uncovered. Duranty's frauds survived for decades. The lies of the BBC's Andrew Gilligan had a shelf life of weeks. What has changed is the exponentially increased power of the ordinary layman to gather, collate and assess information over the Internet. In the mid-1960s, the average American would have no way of checking who destroyed the village of Ben Tre. He would have Time, Newsweek and little else. Today, an ordinary working person can make telephone calls or receive an emails from Vietnam, and Peter Arnett's deception would have little chance of surviving. But what has also changed is that the ordinary working person, in comparison to the professional journalist, is no longer so ordinary.

The average person holding a day job is now far better educated than the working journalist. The "day job" holders in the 21st century First World tend to be engineers, technicians, lawyers, doctors or businessmen. They fly airplanes, run corporations, disassemble genetic sequences, write computer programs, build bridges, send spacecraft into interstellar space. Jayson Blair, by contrast, was a college dropout. So when Andrew Gilligan reported this, it just didn't ring true with the "day job" folks.

The location was a central London hotel and the source was waiting as I got there. We'd both been too busy to meet for nearly a year, but there was no sign this would be anything more than a routine get-together... We'd discussed the famous Blair dossier on Iraq's weapons at our previous meeting, a few months before it was published last September. "It's really not very exciting, you know," he'd told me. So what, I asked him now, had changed? "Nothing changed," he said. "Until the week before, it was just like I told you. It was transformed the week before publication, to make it sexier." What do you mean? Can I take notes? "The classic," he said, "was the statement that WMD were ready for use in 45 minutes. One source said it took 45 minutes to launch a missile and that was misinterpreted to mean that WMD could be deployed in 45 minutes. There was no evidence that they had loaded conventional missiles with WMD, or could do so anything like that quickly." I asked him how this transformation happened. The answer was a single word. "Campbell." What? Campbell made it up? "No, it was real information. But it was included against our wishes because it wasn't reliable."

People don't talk like that in real life, in elliptical tones and one-word dramatic cryptograms. No one except journalists imagining themselves to be with spies. This kind of purple prose might have passed muster when college graduates were rarities and the average newspaper reader was a bricklayer. But times have caught up with journalists. Their readers are smarter than they are. Lastly, the sophisticated reader is now an active analyst of the news. It's called blogging. And while not very many of the blogs may be read, each represents an individual attempt to make sense of the world. The journalists had better work on their lying. The old stuff don't cut it no more.